Mental Health
Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children's
Teen girl hugging her knees

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and now that we’re almost 1 ½ years into the COVID pandemic, it’s easy to feel stuck. Some kids (and adults too!) tell me that every day feels the same. Not only that, they tell me that they feel stuck in a negative mood spiral. When we feel stressed, our brains naturally try to protect us by saying “stay away” from that thing that makes us feel stressed. But staying away from things that make us feel stressed often causes us to miss out on things we love too. And it keeps us from learning that we can survive the stress.

For example, if you’re feeling afraid of taking a test at school and you stay home instead, you miss out on fun time with your friends at lunch. Your brain also misses the chance to learn that you can handle taking that test, even if you didn’t get the grade you wanted. The more we try to stay away from things that cause us stress, the worse our mood becomes, we stay away from more situations, our mood gets worse, and before you know it, we’re officially in a negative mood spiral. Oh no!


The good news is that our brain can always learn new tricks. We can get unstuck! Our brain will start to think differently when our bodies act differently. Here are five strategies for getting unstuck:

  1. Realize that you’re normal. Feeling stuck is part of being human. Everything, including this pandemic, has a beginning, middle, and end. No matter how you’re feeling, it is not your new forever!
  2. Spend time with people that make you feel good. Laughter truly is the best medicine. Our brains were built for being social. Even if you think you’re more of a loner, spending one on one time with a friend or family member can really boost your mood.
  3. Work on goals that feel important to you. We sometimes lose sight of our values, the things that really matter to us, and that can cause us to feel stuck. For some people, it’s about learning new skills or doing their best at school. For others, having good relationships with family and friends are the priority. Try to do something small each day that fits that goal (e.g., study for 30 minutes, ask your sister how her day went at dinner, text a friend when you get home from school).
  4. Do things that make you feel good. If you like taking pictures, do that! If you like to knit, do it! Take a walk with your dog. Listen to music or play that musical instrument you love. Even when you don’t feel like it at first, it feels so much better after you get started.
  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat! By doing things differently, you can turn that negative mood spiral around and the positive changes can become your new normal! Our brain is full of neurons that learn how to think from what we do.


Lastly, it’s important to know that some days you won’t feel like doing something different. Be kind to yourself. You may need to ask for help from someone that cares about you—we all need help sometimes (it’s part of being human). You may need to make your goal easier. Instead of going for a run, go for a walk. Instead of studying for an hour, start with five minutes and see how you feel from there.


You can start fresh every day. Your brain is always learning new tricks from your body and these new tricks can become habits that last a lifetime—you’re worth it!